Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

Legislation causing Kansas communities

September 6, 2001

Anyone taking care of school-age children is probably aware of the expenses that come with educating a child the new school clothes, a fresh box of crayons, maybe even a computer.

But whether they realize it or not, the state of Kansas has given communities increased responsibility to pay for the schools themselves.

Critics say the state is shirking its responsibility to fund schools, leaving communities to increase their local option budgets. Legislators say the state already spends half of its general fund on education and has saved Kansans an increase in state taxes.

"It's very political," Superintendent Marty Kobza said. "You have a situation where the Legislature is trying to cut taxes."

He said Eudora felt the impact of the legislature's decisions. For instance, the amount of money per pupil the state gives schools hasn't kept up with inflation.

"That's why we have to go to our local taxpayers," Kobza said. "I would say there's been a shift on the part of the state from the state to the local becoming more and more responsible for funding education."

Increased emphasis on local entities supporting schools has consequences at home.

"We've had to raise our LOB in previous years just to keep the district at a status quo level," he said.

Because Eudora's tax base is mostly residential rather than commercial, tax rates have to increase more here than they might somewhere else. Critics also argue that when the state finances schools it's able to play Robin Hood and collect from wealthier school districts and distribute to poorer ones. When individual communities finance the schools, wealthier districts can get by paying less in taxes while getting an equal if not better education.

State Senator Sandy Praeger agreed that relying on LOBs prevented parity from school district to school district. Praeger also has had several years experience teaching in the classroom.

"The concern that all of us in the legislature have is that the LOB is a disequalizing part of the school formula," she said.

State Representative Lee Tafanelli said LOBs put control in the hands of individual districts.

"If they want to do something above and beyond, it allows them the ability to do it," he said. The problem with LOBs, he said, is the concern that different districts can raise different amounts of money, but statewide tax increases have their problems, too.

"It's hard to ask for someone in one part of the state to fund a school in another part of the state," he said.

With increased pressure put on the Eudora district to finance the schools, it has looked elsewhere for funding.

"It seems as if we want to do anything extra we have to look at a grant," Kobza said.

The problem with grants is what to do with the programs after they run out, he said. Moreover, some grants require schools with a certain percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches a percentage less than Eudora's 23 percent.

Who should carry the primary weight of funding public education?

"What I would say is that one of the primary functions (of the state) is to support the public schools," Kobza said.

Tafanelli said he'd like to see a study showing how much money is necessary to finance a quality education.

Some legislators contend that increases in funding should be based on tangible improvements, like improved test scores. With decisions about school finance, Praeger said she thought teacher salaries would become a big part of that debate.

She said increasing pay based on merit is how the private sector works.

"I think we need to explore ways to reward good teachers, and that doesn't necessarily mean penalizing those who aren't as good."

But Kobza warns of basing a teacher's worth and student's abilities on tests alone.

"It's hard to hit a moving target, Kobza said.

Because the same grade level of students is tested each year, like third graders for instance, a different set of students is assessed each year because the previously-tested students are now fourth graders.

Moreover, the tests reflect how well the student tested on that particular day rather than a range of measures.

"They don't consider what happened that morning, who's sitting beside them," he said.

Praeger said she agreed that tests don't consider outside influences like family and lifestyle.

"It's so easy for us to blame the schools when we don't like what's going on in the home life," she said.

The good thing about tests, Tafanelli said, is that they do provide information about how schools are doing.

"I'm very cognizant of how many tests the children have to go through," he said. "It's one of the few things I can think of where you get a measure of are we spending our money appropriately."

Moreover, Tafanelli said, throwing more money at schools doesn't guarantee improvements. But he said he supported teacher salary increases, although raising state taxes isn't the way to do that right now.

Praeger said tightening budgets called for creative solutions.

"We don't have revenues because we are in an economic slowdown," she said.

That slowdown meant all areas had to cut back, Tafanelli said.

"That means everybody has to tighten their belt. I think there are ways of schools doing that that don't have to harm education programs."

Cutting programs like physical education and music aren't the answer, Praeger said. She pointed to the Lawrence School District, which saved money by cutting administrative positions. She also said finding outside sponsorship for athletic programs was a good idea, too.

While a slowing economy requires businesses and individuals to slow down on spending, Praeger said she doesn't put schools in that same category.

"With our own personal budget we have the opportunity to make choices, like waiting to buy a car," she said. "Are we saying we want schools to say, 'I'm sorry we don't have the money to buy books'? I don't think you can make that comparison."

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